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The Curious Case of the Orang Ikan

Merbeings have been present in folklore throughout the world since practically as long as folklore has been around. Yet as much as the idea of half-human, half-fish beings may sound like mere flight of fancy there are numerous reports of real-life sightings and encounters with strange merbeings from all over the world. Such accounts suggest that something very much like the mermaids of lore could be somehow real, but does this fit in with our reality or not? Is it it all spooky stories or is there something more to it? Whether you believe they are possible are not, it is undeniable that half-human/half-fish beings or creatures are a recurring theme around the world and across cultural divides, and that they seem to have a very real place in the world of the strange. Perhaps some of these cases are worth looking at.

Weird cases of merbeings come from far-flung corners of the world, with some coming from places you may have never even heard of. During World War II, amidst the fighting that was quickly flaming across the Pacific there is an interesting case that was reported by Japanese soldiers from the Kei Islands of Indonesia in 1943. The Kei Islands, also known as the Kai Islands, are located in the south-eastern part of the Maluka Islands of Indonesia. The Kei Islands cover a total area of around 555 square miles and are famous for their pristine, beautiful beaches and unspoiled scenery. It was in this gorgeous island paradise of postcard perfect, pristine white sand beaches that a most peculiar and mysterious case of real merbeings occurred.

The Kei Islands, Indonesia

In 1943, Japanese soldiers stationed with a surveillance team on a small, remote island within the Kei island chain reported seeing strange creatures in the water that were said to have limbs and a face somewhat similar to a human, but a mouth like a carp, filled with needle-like teeth. These bizarre creatures were described as typically being around 150 cm tall, and having pink or salmon colored skin, as well as prominent spines or spikes of some sort on their heads or even their necks and shoulders. These strange beats were not really keeping with the image of what a mermaid should look like at all. Unlike the more classical mermaids, these merbeings were not described as attractive maidens, and did not have wholly fish tails, but rather possessed two long arms and two prominent, frog-like legs, both of which ended in wicked talons.

On several occasions, these beings were seen cavorting about near beaches or most commonly in lagoons. In one case, two of the odd creatures were spotted playing in a lagoon, and another was reportedly seen swimming near a beach in a manner similar to a human doing the breast stroke. One report was told by a startled soldier who recalls seeing one of the creatures on a beach one night. At first the soldier had thought it was a child until it turned around and he could see in the moonlight that its facial features were not quite right. The creature quickly ran headlong into the water upon being seen and did not resurface. They were allegedly able to get around on land to some degree, with another soldier claiming to have seen one running about on the sand at dusk, seeming to be looking for something. However, they were claimed to be most at home in the water, through which they were able to deftly and agilely dart and zoom through with ease.

There were even reports of the troops stationed there engaging the creatures. One patrol of Japanese soldiers claimed that they had slogged through a thicket of underbrush to come upon an isolated lagoon. At first things seemed as serene and peaceful as most scenes on the quiet island, but then there was a sudden thrashing in the water. Thinking it was some sort of large fish, the curious soldiers looked on to see what would happen, trying to peer through the sun-speckled surface to see what sort of fish could be causing such a commotion. As they squinted and gazed at the water, a strange being lurched out from beneath to pull itself up onto a rock outcropping. It was described as being pinkish in color and having ape-like features, only it was devoid of hair and possessed an oversized mouth like a fish, with arms that ended in webbed hands and claws.

The creature quickly turned to the soldiers gawking on the bank and reportedly let out a gurgling burping noise that the troops did not translate as being particularly friendly. Soon after another could be seen making its way through the water towards them in a purportedly elegant, smooth fashion as fast as any fish. The speed with which it approached was startling, and those claws weighed on everyone’s mind. As the second creature silently darted towards them, the one on the rock continued its background symphony of gurgling, throaty coughing noises and the men began to fire. The water erupted in spouts of water kicked up by bullets and fire was directed towards the rock as well, but shortly after this barrage the creatures were gone, leaving the baffled troops there amidst the jungle noises wondering what they had just seen.

Another bedraggled and exhausted soldier who had taken a break near the water to pour some over himself and cool down reported that as he opened his eyes from the pleasure of feeling the cool water on his skin he saw staring back at him the face of a “horrible monkey-thing with a fish mouth and spines like a sea urchin” protruding from the surface not 3 feet from him, exuding a fishy stench. He immediately fumbled for his sidearm and unloaded it at the terrifying thing, but whether he hit it or not remains unknown. When his panicked blind firing was done the creature had sunk beneath the water and vanished. Other soldiers, while not directly encountering the beasts, often saw them lying on secluded beaches or swimming languidly about. At least one soldier claims to have seen one catching fish and stuffing them into its gaping mouth. They were most frequently sighted in lagoons, not typically near the sea itself.

Although the Japanese soldiers were deeply perplexed by these sightings and encounters, these creatures were not unknown to the indigenous people of the islands. When asked about them, villagers in the vicinity told the Japanese that they were known locally as the Orang Ikan. In Malay, Orang means “human” and Ikan means “fish,” so we have something akin to “man fish.” The villagers said that they were often seen about the islands, and were sometimes even caught in nets. They were said to mostly keep to themselves, but that they were fiercely territorial and would attack if approached too closely. Indeed, the creatures were feared but seen as a fact of life, and the Japanese were informed that if another was captured, they would be told so that they could see for themselves.

One evening, the sergeant of the surveillance team, a Mr. Taro Horiba, was summoned by the chief of the nearby village. It was announced to Horiba that an Orang Ikan had been found dead on a beach earlier that day and the body was available for viewing. The sergeant somewhat skeptically made his way towards the hut, where anxious villagers were gathered, looking as if they were scared of something. The Japanese sergeant found himself wondering if he really wanted to see what was in that hut, to come face to face with what was frightening these local people so much. Nevertheless, the rational part of him assumed that there would be some mundane explanation, that he would find an explainable answer within. Horiba would be dumfounded by what he was to find sprawled out upon the grass laid out at the chief’s home.

Horibe described the strange, dead creature he saw laid out there as being around 160 cm long and possessing a head of red-brown, shoulder length hair, although it was sparse and patchy, as well as spines along the neck. The face was said to be quite ugly, with a combination of human and ape-like features; a low, short nose, a broad forehead, and small ears. The lipless mouth was wide like that of a fish, specifically described like that of a carp, and filled with tiny, sharp needle-like teeth which were mused to be perfect for grabbing and holding prey. The creature’s fingers and toes were long and webbed, and ended in translucent claws. Horiba also reported that there was some sort of algae attached all over its body, which gave the body a greenish cast in some places. The stench of the beast was said to be horrific, like a mix of rotting fish and fetid meat, an absolute assault on the senses.

Sergeant Horiba, although having sighted the Orang Ikan himself on several occasions but from a distance and doubting what he had seen, could not fathom what it was that he had witnessed so closely at the chief’s home. There was no known creature residing on the island that could have possibly accounted for the strange, dead humanoid creature he had witnessed, and the sight of the carcass deeply disturbed and unsettled him. Upon returning to Japan, Horiba told of his experiences and urged zoologists to go investigate the phenomena, but no one took him seriously. The fact that he had taken no photos did not help his cause, and in the end he was mostly ridiculed.

What is it these soldiers were seeing? What was that carcass at the chief’s house? Could there have been a real animal behind this case? The local villagers certainly seemed to think so, so here we have a classic case of an ethnoknown animal, meaning that it is known by locals, coming to the knowledge of baffled outsiders. It does not appear that these mysterious merbeings can be merely attributed to the wild imaginings of the foreign Japanese in a strange land in wartime under harsh conditions, especially with the number of sightings made by more than one witness. There is really no hard evidence available, but let’s take a moment to explore some possibilities.

Many merbeing sightings have been attributed to misidentifications of dugongs or manatees. Dugongs, although rare, were once found all over the Indo-Pacific, and could very well have existed in the areas of these Indonesian sightings. However, it seems unlikely that dugongs could be the culprit behind the reports of the Orang Ikan. Dugongs do not have two arms and two legs like Orang Ikan were reported to have, and it does not seem that a dugong’s face could be misconstrued as being all that human-like. They are also not known for their agile, speedy swimming or maneuverability, which is a hallmark of Orang Ikan reports. Villagers would also have likely been able to make a distinction between any dugongs in the area and a merbeing. It was most definitely not the body of a dugong that sergeant Horiba described seeing at the village chief’s house, nor a dugong that had crawled up onto a rock to threaten soldiers. A dugong seems to make for a poor candidate in explaining these phenomena.

What else could these strange creatures have been? When pondering this case, I cannot help but notice the resemblance between these Orang Ikan and some other types of aquatic, ape-like beings that have been reported elsewhere. The Thetis Lake Gillman that was sighted at Thetis Lake on Vancouver Island in 1972, for instance, seems to share some Orang Ikan characteristics, as does the Pugwis merbeings of Native American lore. Pugwis and the Thetis Lake Monster, like the Orang Ikan, are creatures that feature prominent spines or spikes on the head, two arms, two legs rather than a fish tail, webbed fingers and toes, and generally appear to be amalgam of ape and fish features. Could the Orang Ikan reported by the Kei Island natives and Japanese soldiers have been a similar sort of creature to these other cryptids?

One possibility is that all of these accounts have their basis in some sort of unknown primate that diverged long ago to adapt to an aquatic or semi-aquatic life. We could certainly expect such a primate to evolve some of the aquatic features mentioned in relation to the Orang Ikan, the Pugwis, and Thetis Lake monster. It is likely that an aquatic adapted ape-like creature would look more like these creatures than the classical mermaid image of a perfect human torso upon a perfectly fish-like tail. Although the idea that there were ever aquatic apes had largely been discredited, it is still an intiguing possibility to explain such reports.

The particular location of the Orang Ikan sightings also leads me to speculate on another possibility. The relatively recent unearthing in Indonesia of the fossils of Homo floresiensis also known as “Flores Man” or “the real Hobbit,” shows us that there was once a previously unknown type of pygmy hominid found there. It is not known what the specific range of Homo floresiensis was, and it seems possible they could very well have inhabited other Indonesian islands in addition to Flores island. Is it possible that these Flores hominids were also present on the Kei islands, and at some point adapted to a more aquatic habitat in this geographically isolated environment? It is thought by some researchers that Homo floresiensis may have had its small size due to island dwarfism, which is one possible adaptation to cope with limited resources in an island ecosystem. It seems possible that such an isolated population could have adapted in other ways as well.

Perhaps an isolated population of Homo floresiensis on the Kei Islands could have dealt with the same kind of geographical pressures by at least partially adapting a more aquatic lifestyle to take advantage of coastal resources there. Coastal areas provide rich potential for food resources, so it does not seem completely unfeasible that a primate or early hominid in a remote habitat could have perhaps evolved along these lines. It is certainly interesting to speculate about. Could an aquatic adapted population of Homo floresiensis or some sort of primate or hominid explain these Indonesian merbeings? Or was it something else? Whatever they were, the Orang Ikan presents a curious and little known mystery that has never been satisfactorily solved, and of all of the alleged merging sightings out there, this case of Japanese soldiers being startled during the war by such creatures on these remote islands seems to hole a certain mystique to it. Whether it was true merbeings like those from folklore or not or something else, it certainly seems that something weird was going on over there. Just what that was we may never know.